Florida in winter

Mad @ Mgmt addresses the concerns of middle-market companies, including banking, family and succession issues, turnarounds and performance improvement, and economic life in general. Walter Simson is founder and principal of Ventor Consulting, a firm dedicated to middle market companies.

No, this is not a travel piece. It’s about Madison, Wis., and the Florida is a person, not a place.

He is Richard Florida, economist of sorts (he calls himself “one of the world’s leading public intellectuals on economic competitiveness”). He is famous for his thesis that exciting cities make for prosperous cities precisely because excitement is what people want in their workplace and entrepreneurs want for their start-ups.

Madison is a prime exhibit on the Florida map, for good reason. Let me give a few examples why, many from my history of living there once upon a time:

1. It’s a place for writers – not just famous novelists and essayists, but regular people. I got a real boost to my writing life when I took some courses at the University of Wisconsin’s extension program. The courses there, both real and virtual, were top-notch, and the summer courses and workshops are as good as or better than others I have taken around the country. My favorite teacher, Marshall Cook, has retired, but suffice it to say that Marshall called himself “Coach,” and with Marshall coaching you felt like a star player.

There are great writers’ groups, too. It is easier, in my experience, to write for a person than to write for a blank page. So choosing a writers’ group means choosing the people for whom you will be preparing your material. One successful group is Tuesdays with Story, which maintains two groups, each meeting twice a month. Successful writers whose loyalty to the group has paid off over the years include Kashmira Sheth and Jerry Peterson. Writers as young as high school age are welcome, although the literary tastes of adolescents can be wearing. One group of serious writers, referring to this, is reportedly lobbying for a “dragon-free zone.”

2. It’s a place for thinkers. My favorite Madison group, for personal reasons, is the Madison Committee on Foreign Relations (MCFR), a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that invites speakers, including former U.S. ambassadors and other insiders, to an intimate setting for appetizers and dinner, followed by a talk, an off-the-record question, and answers. There is nothing quite as satisfying as hearing from a participant in human drama what the prime minister said during a crisis, or what is likely to happen in tomorrow’s hot spots. It brings a real sense that the newspapers can only scratch the surface, and only old-fashioned talk can bring out the texture and nuances in human affairs.

3. It’s a place for science. I have two areas I admire here: the UW hospital system, and Epic Systems.

First, UW. The PR folks can provide the background on the number of beds and the reflected light of many awards, but I prefer to focus on clinician-researchers. One is Dr. Girma Tefera, who sees patients in Wisconsin and also teaches at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was recognized by the American College of Surgeons for his work in 2011. His story – the length and breadth of his lifelong voyage, and his utter determination to make things better in his homeland – is worthy of a column of its own.

Another noteworthy model is Hans Sollinger, a transplant researcher, surgeon, and teacher (as well as dedicated sportsman). I have met Dr. Sollinger a number of times, but it was on a plane from some godforsaken place to another that my seatmate told me her daughter had been treated by Dr. Sollinger many years ago, and that she and many other patients are invited to return to Madison each year for a multi-family celebration of progress, hope, and life. That to me is unique – performing surgery, then celebrating the lives lived afterwards.

Epic Systems is the a pre-eminent developer of hospital computer systems in the U.S., marrying the mundane (like receivable collection) with the advanced (like clinical records and pattern recognition.) It was started by a UW graduate student Judy Faulkner, who has remained intensely private even as founders of lesser companies reach for headlines. In addition to being a training ground for countless young consultants and a leader in the field, the company has an environmental bent, including setting up its Verona headquarters with geothermal heating and cooling. And every Madison-area restaurateur, hotelier, and cabbie knows the Epic meeting calendar. The visitors to Epic have kept Madison’s hospitality industry hopping.

4. It’s a place for easy transportation. Only in Madison can you take a light rail from Epic Systems to the airport, along the way passing the university, the state Capitol, the Kohl Center hockey rink, Camp Randall Stadium, multiple shopping malls, hotels, and business centers. Before, downtown Madison was a traffic nightmare, but this system handles even the wonderfully expanded convention and tourism volume that easy transportation naturally attracts. It’s a paragon of …

What? No light rail? Still a traffic nightmare? … Maybe it’s an opportunity for a really great city to become a world-class destination to study, do business, and visit. As a matter of fact, if you read the Florida reports, easy mass transit is a key element of the top-ranking cities. In this competitive world, it is a crucial next step.

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